Former Fox Cable distribution executive Sean Riley seemed to have the life. He was living in Trinidad and hanging around in bars. Riley said it was all part of developing his new business, an out-of-home network designed to be viewed in bars, restaurants and other businesses.
The business, Barvanna, will get a big boost on October 24 when it launches on DirecTV for Business, which reaches 300,000 establishments in the U.S.
In an interview, Riley said Barvanna (opens in new tab) is DirecTV for Business’s first network specifically designed for out-of-home consumption.
Distribution — Riley negotiated a long-term deal with DirecTV — is one way he thinks Barvanna will stand out from other out-of-home networks, which mostly go directly to individual businesses.
“After 25 years in the cable industry, I understand the value of working with distributors,“ Riley said. “We can certainly go direct on a bar-by-bar basis, but there is a tremendous benefit to us and for distributors and for these locations. That includes joint marketing. We’re going to get broad distribution and the distributor gets a new unique channel that’s specifically designed for public spaces.”
When Barvanna is up and running on DirecTV for Business it will be one of the most widely distributed out-of-home networks in the U.S., Riley said.
“DirecTV strives to provide our commercial customers with the best tools to help them thrive while creating an experience that will keep their patrons engaged,” DirecTV Business Solutions senior VP Doug Eichler said. “Barvanna delivers a dynamic and unique network that is satellite-friendly, highly engaging and different from anything else on the market. We are excited to work with them and are confident that our customers will enjoy all the entertaining content they offer.”
While cord-cutting is certainly a factor on the business-to-business side, business owners see it in their own homes, Riley noted. “I believe a lot of public spaces are still going to want a package of high-quality networks, so it feels to me that cord-cutting won’t accelerate nearly as fast as on the residential side."
Riley declined to describe the financial arrangement with DirecTV but said Barvanna’s philosophy is not to pay for distribution. He added that Barvanna was open to sharing ad revenue or inventory with distributors and he’s looking to get the network carried by more multichannel video programming distributors (MVPDs).
Barvanna’s content aims to engage patrons while being complementary to other programming delivered by DirecTV for Business. Barvanna content features trivia questions and conversation-starters like “Would You Rather?” There are also action-sports highlights. All are delivered without sound or talking-head emcees.
In some cases, Barvanna’s content will be tailored to special situations. On St. Patrick's Day, there will be questions about Ireland. More importantly, on Saturdays in the fall there will be questions about college football and on Sundays the main topic will be the NFL.
Riley is hoping that in a bar or a health club setting Barvanna would play on a screen or two while most on-premises TVs show football games, other sports, news or weather. “That gives the bar’s patrons an additional entertainment option when they are in that out-of-home space,” he said.
Barvanna’s revenue will come from advertising and the company is looking for a head of ad sales. It expects that some endemic categories, such as beverages, will be likely advertisers.
“The strategy with advertisers will be proving to them that we can get them results,” Riley said. He plans to run ads with coupons and QR codes that will drive viewers to advertisers in a way that’s measurable. Advertisers will also want to know how many people are seeing their ads, but measuring viewing is tricky in out-of-home spaces. Riley said he’s talking to a number of measurement companies to see what they offer.
At first, Barvanna will deliver a single national feed with advertising. But eventually, it would like to offer more addressable ads and be able to sell them programmatically.
After launching on DirecTV, Barvanna has expansion plans, with additional networks including a music channel aimed at businesses looking for ambiance. There could also be a channel that’s non-stop trivia and others designed specifically for spas or doctor offices. Riley even sees a version of Barvanna sending trivia and other games into residences so that people can have game nights in their homes.
“We’re really just getting started,” Riley said. “If DirecTV and other MVPDs continue to see the value of delivering channels that are specifically designed for out of home, then we want to be there to create new networks for them that work for everybody.”
Riley left Fox in 2013 and spent a few years consulting before he was hired by Cable & Wireless in the Caribbean — owned by Liberty Latin America — to launch a regional sports channel. The network, Flow Sports (opens in new tab), launched in 2015 with soccer, cricket and track and field, carrying the Rio de Janeiro Olympic games in 2016. It became the highest-rated sports network in the Caribbean, he said.
One of the network’s advertisers, Carib Brewery, came to Riley to see if there was a way to digitize all of the collateral material it sent to bars each month. While working on that, he asked if the brewery would be interested in setting up a video network that would deliver promotional content.
It turned out bars and restaurants weren’t crazy about that idea. But many of them said that if Riley could create an entertainment-style network to deliver those promotional messages, they‘d be interested in that, inspiring the Barvanna idea.
Barvanna developed content that features trivia, questions designed to be conversation starters and sports highlights. Riley initiated a proof of concept, delivering the network via broadband into dedicated Android boxes at each location.
“We started testing what worked, what people gravitated to, in these locations,” Riley said. “We sat for a few extra hours in bars and restaurants, gauging the interest and watching to see how patrons were interacting with our content.”
Riley finished his work at Flow Sports in 2019 and decided to bring Barvanna to the U.S.
“We had a proof of concept and we knew it worked, but the pandemic set in, so we had to put the business on hold for most of 2020,” Riley said. Riley and his team spend the time writing code and developing new content modules.
“We knew there would be pent-up demand,” he said. “People are going to be back out in bars, restaurants, hotels, health clubs. The out-of-home space was going to be back stronger than ever.”
Barvanna launched in the Caribbean in 2021 with Cable & Wireless Business. It reached 12,000 locations across multiple countries.
After that, Barvanna turned to the U.S. starting out with a handful of businesses getting the network through Android boxes. It needed to reach more businesses.
“We went to DirecTV first because we recognize they are a leader in the space,” Riley said. Riley knew some people at the satellite company from his Fox days, he said, which helped with the initial connection.
Riley made the pitch to the DirecTV for Business team. They thought Barvanna was an interesting concept and proposed an eight-month test of the network in 4,000 bars and other locations. If the test worked, DirecTV said it would expand Barvanna to the rest of its base, according to Riley.
After four months, DirecTV reached out to Riley and asked if he would be interested in expanding Barvanna to all 300,000 of its business customers. “They didn’t tell us how many locations turned us on, but what they did say was that people were turning it on and leaving it on for an average of three and a half hours a day,” he said.
Once DirecTV flips the switch to turn Barvanna on, Riley’s job will be letting businesses know it is available and persuading them to devote screen time to the network.
Barvanna will be working closely with DirecTV, which has a number of tools to reach those businesses. DirecTV will promote Barvanna on its portal. There will be direct mail. Riley is developing some incentives to get businesses to turn Barvanna on and leave it on.
“That will be one of our biggest challenges,” he said. “Once people see the network they get it. It's just a question of getting them to change their habits.” ■
Jon has been business editor of Broadcasting+Cable since 2010. He focuses on revenue-generating activities, including advertising and distribution, as well as executive intrigue and merger and acquisition activity. Just about any story is fair game, if a dollar sign can make its way into the article. Before B+C, Jon covered the industry for TVWeek, Cable World, Electronic Media, Advertising Age and The New York Post. A native New Yorker, Jon is hiding in plain sight in the suburbs of Chicago.
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